New Testament

What Does Lukewarm Mean in Rev 3:16?

picture of a fire showing the common interpretation of the lukewarm idea in Rev 3:16

In Revelation 3:14-22 Jesus addresses the church of Laodicea and sternly rebukes their deeds. He says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth” (vv. 15-16).

The most popular interpretation of Revelation 3:16, and particularly the nuance of “lukewarm” is as follows. The hot water stood for people who follow God, the cold water stood for people who reject God, and lukewarm stood for nominal Christianity. This interpretation holds that lukewarm Christianity is deplorable to Christ and that it would be better to be completely opposed to Christ than to be lukewarm, or nominally committed to Him. Although many commentators I respect hold to some variation of this position, I have since become convinced of what I think is a better understanding of Jesus’ words here, especially making sense of the idea of lukewarm.

The Lukewarm Concept and the Geographical Location of Laodicea

Laodicea was an important center of medicine, banking, and business. They were so wealthy that historical sources tell us that after their city was wiped out by an earthquake in 60 AD they were able to finance the reconstruction of the city without help from Rome. The only downside to the city was the lack of enough water to support its large population.

Thus, Laodicea had to import water from Hieropolis (about 6 mi NE) and Colossae (only a short distance SE). A look at the map shows the relationship between these cities.

Map of Laodicea, where the lukewarm water would be

Hierapolis was known for hot springs which were valuable for their medicinal function. Colossae was home to springs which produced cold, pure water. However, because this water was shipped via aqueduct to Laodicea, by the time the water arrived, it had become lukewarm. The lukewarm water was obviously poor drinking quality because of the conditions of the aqueducts, and often produced vomiting.

Jesus’ Use of the Lukewarm Concept

Laodicea pipe with calcium, showing how the water would become lukewarm before reaching Laodicea
Water pipe from ancient Laodicea. Notice the calcium buildup.

A problem with the view I used to hold is that by using the term lukewarm in such a way, Jesus appears to be saying that he would not judge the Laodiceans if they had been cold in their deeds (Rev 3:16). This does not make sense to me if cold is referring to a spiritually callous heart.

It seems that the way the Laodiceans would read Jesus’ message in is in light of the sources of their water supply situation. The cold water from Colossae was pure and useful for drinking, and the hot water from Hierapolis was hot and useful for medical purposes. However, the cold or hot water both become relatively useless by the time it arrived in Laodicea. By the time it arrived in Laodicea it was lukewarm, unable to be used for medicinal purposes, and the lukewarm water also caused vomiting for those who drank it. Hence, Jesus appears to be rebuking the Laodiceans and calling them to repent and make their deeds acceptable and useful to Christ, like either the hot or the cold water, rather than something that is lukewarm and useless.

1st Image: fay.woodford via photopin cc

Other Images used from Pictorial Library of Bible Lands Collection

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

5 Comments

  • Nathan Ownbey

    Thank you for the historical and cultural background. It always helps in Bible exposition to understand the full context. I know that each of the churches addressed by Jesus were spoken to because of their faltering spiritual condition, but is it known why these seven churches were addressed?

    • Peter Goeman

      That’s a good question. Well, from a completely logistical perspective, these 7 churches were all on the same mail route! So it just isn’t practical to try to address two different churches which were on opposite sides of the known world at that time.

  • Joe Elledge

    This is a useful perspective. I am inclined to agree with you. Recall Jame’s admonishment that faith without works is useless. Correspondingly, faith producing works that are ineffective in spreading the gospel, creating disciples, or supporting the saints would be little better.

    More broadly, this would be another example of the additional insight to be had by understanding the cultural and historical context of the Scripture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.